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Book Review: Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales

In Eye of the Shoal author Helen Scales takes the reader on an exciting journey deep into the world of fish. Mixing marine biology, ecology, history, folklore and personal experiences the book delves into a huge variety of topics including fish diversity and communication, as well as the more unusual such as sex-changing and singing fish.

From the outset the reader is hooked by Scales’ engaging and witty writing style. Whenever the author goes on to explore a new species or theme she sets the scene in a way that’s often just as captivating and gripping as a sequence from Blue Planet II. Scales’ knowledge and passion for fish flows off of the pages as she unravels the dramas that take place in seas, lakes and rivers across the globe. This passion is most evident when Scales recalls some of her own aquatic explorations and observations.

Scales doesn’t shy away from anthropomorphising fish throughout the book. Although many people are a bit fishy about anthropomorphising animals, its use in this book only goes to convince the reader that fish are just as amazing as any other vertebrate group. Scales goes a long way to debunk the perception that fish are ‘simple-minded creatures, incapable of thinking for themselves’ and goes on to prove that fish are capable of communication, manipulation, cheating, artistry and so, so much more.

The book is crammed full of findings and discussions from research, spanning from the time of Aristotle right up to some of the ground-breaking scientific studies conducted in the last few decades. Despite being full of facts and figures, evolutionary biology, complex theories and big words such as ‘chromataphore’ and ‘actinopterygians’, the book rarely (if ever) feels like a chore to read. Scales’ writing is smooth and informative and it is clearly her intention to ‘wow’ the reader with the most interesting and important findings on each topic. However, some readers may find Scales’ copious use of footnotes difficult as they often break up the flow and in many cases could be omitted or incorporated into the main text.

Broken into relatively short chapters this book is easy to dip in and out of, but equally could be engulfed in one sitting. Some of the most enjoyable aspects of this book are the ancient and traditional short stories that Scales uses to divide up each chapter. These tales, often riddled with magic and mystery, remind us that humans have had a curious relationship with fish for thousands of years.

As well as discussing some of the things we already know and understand about fish, Scales provides ample food for thought throughout the book. Never is this more evident than in the final chapter ‘(Re) thinking fish’, which is a timely and thought-provoking chapter which takes a balanced and intelligent look at nitty-gritty questions such as ‘how should we treat fish?’, given the recent discoveries about fish intelligence and perception of pain.

Of course, the world of fish is HUGE and so it is inevitable that Scales only scrapes the surface of the realm of knowledge that exists about them. For example, Scales only very briefly touches on what is known (and not known) about fish migration and navigation - a topic that could easily have a whole chapter devoted to it. Some readers may also be disappointed that Scales barely mentions fish declines and conservation, although she makes it clear at the start of the book that it isn’t her intention to dwell on the depressing stuff. It was her intention to remind us that fish matter - and she has done mightily good job of that. More than anything Eye of the Shoal is a testimony that fish are remarkable, complex and diverse animals. It would be a fantastic book for budding marine biologists, naturalists and those with an avid curiosity.

Jack Barton has recently graduated from The University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus with a BSc in Zoology. Jack is an enthusiastic young naturalist and will be spending the winter volunteering at RSPB Mersehead, after going to Georgia to count the autumn raptor migration. You can catch up with his most recent photographs and adventures on Twitter @jackhbarton.


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